08. 25. 2012. 09:35

Boudoir & Theology

Introduction to Miklós Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova

Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. — Marginalia on Casanova, the "utterly unclassifiable work of Miklós Szentkuthy" is published in English for the first time by Contra Mundum Press.

Vast lyrical self-portrait, colossal historical scrapbook, odyssey of travesties, inventory of human feelings, polyglot entropy... hyperbolic phrases naturally surge to mind as soon as one risks a definition of the utterly unclassifiable work of Miklós Szentkuthy (1908-1988). Struck by a perplexing fascination, critics seem incapable of going beyond the level of enchanted stupor—and evoke pell-mell, by way of prudent delineation, the names of Rabelais, Proust, Joyce, Borges, or even those of Gadda or Lezama Lima. Szentkuthy, moreover, contributed greatly to impose this image of a demiurge, who intended in the serenest of manners to “melt all in a single universal time.” Solitary, splendidly isolated, long confined to silence, he continued building after the eruption of his first novel, Prae, an emblematic constellation without parallel in European literature.

Prae, or general pre-figuration, or else alchemical precipitation. Published in 1934, this inaugural book contained the foundational elements of what we must call an illuminated rhetoric: a romanesque structure promoted to the level of character, a burlesque marriage of all antinomies, an exhilarating science of pastiche, dizzying culture deployed as rustling, haughty, and playful, "a classicism of dissemination"—in short, a completely fragmented narrative no less comparable to the dynamiting advocated some years previous by Joyce (whose work, incidentally, Szentkuthy introduced in Hungary). Despite the lucid support of some inspired criticism (László Németh, Antal Szerb, and Gábor Halasz), the "thing"—a monster block of six hundred dense pages, naturally published by the author—was declared by the good spirits of time as "unreadable," and its major fault "non-Magyar," that is: "cosmopolitan."

But it was in 1939 that an even more unexpected fireball landed on Hungarian literary ground: Marginalia on Casanova, nothing less than the first book of the St. Orpheus Breviary, to which nine other volumes would be added: Black Renaissance (1939), Escorial (1940), Europa Minor (1941), Cynthia (1941), Confession and Puppets (1942), The Second Life of Sylvester II (1972), Despair Canonized (1974), The Bloody Ass (1982) and On the Trail of Eurydice (unfinished).

The careful reader will observe a break of thirty years in the accomplishment of this ambitious project. During these long years of suspension, mainly from 1947 to 1957, Szentkuthy adopts the mask of the "internal refugee." Between the translation of a communist Greenland hack and the compulsory study of the Grammar of Stalin during joyful seminars destined to deaden thought, he wrote, according to the Hungarian expression, "for the drawer." He published nevertheless some "invented biographies"—and as many veiled self-portraits—devoted to Mozart, Haydn, Dürer, Handel, and Goethe. The latter, brilliantly entitled Face and Mask, was well worth the wrath of his publisher, who criticized him—oh sweet retrospectives of history!—for not conforming to the image that the German Democratic Republic had of Goethe! For good measure, this professor of English, elected by his peers, peremptorily refused an important position at the university and chose—the thing is rare enough to be reported—not to write a single line honoring the regime up close or from a distance. So much for a minimal biography of this singular temperament: purity and stubbornness...(1)

But let us return to the great work: St. Orpheus Breviary. Basically, this opus can be read as a long mythos of the marginal. From his room-library with some twenty-five thousand volumes, Szentkuthy annotates and revisits history. Mixing with ease and joy hagiography, literary study, fiction, narrative, the lyric poem and the aphorism, this roman-cathedrale, whose denomination "breviary" must not mislead, with the humor of his antiphrasis, offers an unprecedented recrossing as unheard-of as much as it is ironical of all literary and artistic forms cultivated by the West, from early times to the twentieth century, with major milestones: Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish Baroque. As archivist buffoon, Szentkuthy feeds the extravagant theater with his rigorous bulimia of a thousand networks of burgeoning stories, palimpsests in abysses and apocryphal pitfalls. Appropriating countless masks, pacing the epochs, this emotional athlete has no other aim than to break time until it stills the whirlwind of history into one continuous present.

Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. He prefers to cultivate double replicas of being, invest all fates—saints, libertines, popes, musicians, emperors, writers, eunuchs, painters or biblical girls. "I always wanted to see everything,” he confessed, “read everything, think everything, dream everything, swallow everything."

From whence the art and manner of travelling across languages and playing the Argonauts of Planetary Writing (is it a coincidence that Szentkuthy was the translator of both Ulysses and Gulliver?). In truth, this stubborn survivor of the Enlightenment seems motivated entirely by a furious encyclopedic desire. A simple glance at the table of contents of the Breviary suffices to show the profligacy of this inner odyssey, where a few characters who were never in search of an author marched pell-mell: Casanova, Mozart, Adonis, Toscanini, Turner, Rubens, Brunelleschi, Keats, Herodotus, El Greco, Pythagoras, Voltaire, Puccini, Ariosto, Tintoretto, Shelley, Abelard, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Messalina, Theodora, Akbar, Lao Tzu, Palladio, Mary Tudor, Donatello, Philip II, Buddha, etc.

As many roles as Szentkuthy assumes in the manner of a comedian or an absolute dreamer, writing thus a sumptuous catalogus amoris. Here truly resides the infinite song of an Orpheus with Apollonian harmonies, god of metamorphosis, "being whose role it is to celebrate," in the words of Rilke.

In an age where anyone—even under the sign of the worst conformism—prides oneself on marginality, Szentkuthy appears, all in all, as the writer of the absolute margin. Throughout his life, he continued to write in the margins of his books, covering and recovering—maniacally, scrupulously—volumes, newspapers, journals, and other documents. An infinite mosaic of notes, footnotes, keywords and various doodles, continuous shuffling between reading and writing—one without the other is here inconceivable—interminable bubbling of the library-universe in the heart of the Opus Magnum. Borges reminds us: "Another superstition of those ages has come to us: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf of some hexagon, we reasoned, there must exist a book which is the key and summary of all the others; there is a librarian who has read this book and who is like a god."(2) If there is a writer who is a Man of the Book, according to the wish of the Argentinean master, it is Szentkuthy, in relentless pursuit of a magnum opus that would contain and even restore all creation.

Such was his passion, and his method as well. A process inaugurated in the first book of the Breviary, precisely titled Marginalia on Casanova. Strangely—but can we talk of strangeness when discussing a man who claimed to "work in co-production with chance"?—the structure of this founding volume owes much to theology. In 1938, Szentkuthy read the Römerbrief of the famous Protestant exegete Karl Barth, a commentary that is based on an analysis, phrase by phrase, even word by word, of the Epistle to the Romans. Literally enchanted by the effectiveness of this method—"where, in his words, every epithet puts imagination in motion"—he decided to apply it on the spot to Casanova, whose memoirs (a German edition in six large volumes) he had just annotated with gusto.

Simultaneity of all epochs, anachronistic audacity, chaos erected into a system ("the order of the random," as defined by the same author)—was what this flamboyant opus quietly gave to read. The reception? Actually, there was none, since as soon as it was published—and even though Szentkuthy dutifully went to the church to "give thanks to all competent authorities of Catholic Heaven" to have authorized this iconoclast publication—the Royal Hungarian Court condemned Marginalia on Casanova for blasphemous profanity and assault on decency. Enjoying the protection of a prosecutor of the crown, the accused barely escaped trial—but all copies of the work were immediately confiscated. Thus was inaugurated the series of "Orpheuses"...(3)

Let’s measure once more the eternal stupidity of the censor. What are we really being told about in Casanova? Of literature, of metaphysics, and of sensuality ("the thought is as sensuous as the smell of a rose," T.S. Eliot already noted about the Baroque poets)—certainly all things scandalous, but that would not likely undermine the social order of the country, which stood so strong in the bounded zeal of the régime of the censors. Our "blasphemer," known for his obsessive taste for transvestism, borrows in the space of a book the panoply of the Venetian, and makes a breathtaking inventory of forms dear to the eighteenth century. Through one hundred and twenty-three notes radiating around these cyclical themes (the mask, the ball, the bath, impossible youth, Venice, the boats, the night, autumn, lethal romanticism, intoxication, the asceticism proper to dandyism, gardens, opera, etc.), Szentkuthy reinvests, with his unique, playful, and tragic tone, the Memoirs of the perfect lover. Anxious to break down barriers between genres (here the scholastic treatise and the fashion magazine), associating baroque crests flowing together like endless rows of pearls, multiplying the set pieces (we recommend the l’“inédit” of Abelard, namely the portrait of Heloise reconstituted in macaronic Latin, also a bewildering description of Tintoretto's Susanna), he locates the metaphysical ideal in Casanova, able to reconcile elegance and bestiality—or, if one prefers, boudoir and theology. In short, beautiful as the encounter of Leibniz and Gloria Swanson on the stage of the Fenice!


(1) For further consideration, the reader can refer to the magazine Caravan (No. 2, 1990), which published the first five chapters of the Frivolous Confessions—an extensive protean autobiography now being translated by Éditions Phébus.
(2) “The Library of Babel,” Fictions.
(3) It was not until 1973, thirty-four years later, that the book finally saw the light of day, on the occasion of the reissue of the first six of Books of Orpheus. An opportunity that Szentkuthy would take to recompose and unify once more the Breviary by opening each volume with the "life of a saint."

Introduction to Miklós Szentkuthy: Marginalia on Casanova
New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Cover design by István Orosz



See publisher's page

Zéno Bianu

Translated by: Rainer J. Hanshe

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy